What we heard on this summer's lock and dam tours

Our focus-group kayak tours provided some of our participants' first experiences paddling on the Mississippi River. (Photo by David Wheaton)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin a disposition study this fall to examine the futures of both the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam and Lock and Dam No. 1 (aka the Ford Dam). 

The study will consider several different ownership and management scenarios for the structures. Dam removal is the most significant potential option. It's hard to overstate what a big change this would mean for our river gorge. To help our community prepare for this study, FMR and our partners (Dr. Roopali Phadke at Macalester College, the National Parks Conservation Association, American Rivers, the National Park Service and the St. Paul Public Library) set out to engage as many people on the issue as we could this summer.

Over the past few months, we've had conversations with over 600 community members about the disposition study.

Most notably, more than 400 people joined us for a series of free, public focus-group tours this summer. We explored the locks and dams via hikes, bikes, kayaks and a boat cruise. Our goal was to gather feedback and perspectives on the question of dam removal and the river's future. These tours delivered. We had hundreds of interesting and insightful conversations at more than 20 events.

Here's what we've learned so far.

Our boat trip offered an accessible way to experience travel through the lock and dam. (Photo by David Wheaton for FMR) 

What we've heard

With these tours, we wanted to inform people about the history and purpose of these locks and dams, explore what dam removal and other scenarios could mean for the river and explain how to participate in the Army Corps process. While the focus group data is still being fully evaluated, a few common themes stand out.

At the end of every tour we asked our participants: "What is your wish for the river?" The response we heard most often is that people want the river to be healthy and clean. Others wished for a river that is "loved, protected and enjoyed by all" and "celebrated as a living system." (We'll celebrate all our dreams for the river at our fall event on September 29. You can share yours here.)

Another frequent observation we heard is that far more people seem to recreate along the river than on the river. Our riverfront parks are popular for walking, biking and fishing, but boat and paddle access to this section between downtown Minneapolis and Minnehaha Creek is very limited right now. The high demand for our kayak and boat focus groups underscored the lack of access and the desire to experience the river from the water.

We also fielded many insightful questions about what dam removal or other future scenarios would mean. Not only does FMR appreciate these questions, but we also share many of them. While dam removal is generally good for rivers and the ecosystems they support, the Twin Cities' locks and dams, as well as the urban infrastructure we've built around them, are uniquely complex.

FMR's BIPOC River Stewards enjoyed both walking and kayak tours of the lock and dam.

'I'm not as sure what the right decision is'

It became clear that our tours left folks with the understanding that the issue of dam removal here carries with it big implications. One participant shared, "I came to this event with a pretty firm belief about whether or not these locks and dams should be removed. Now I see that it's so complex, and I'm not as sure what the right decision is."

FMR doesn't yet have a position on whether these dams should be removed. Hearing from you is an important step in our own decision process.

Our project also gathered data about how people would like to be engaged in the official disposition study; Macalester College is sharing this feedback with the Army Corps to inform their community engagement.

This work wouldn't have been possible without our partners as well as some new FMR staff members. FMR's grassroots organizing coordinator, Maddie Miller, has helped lead this effort. Two of FMR's summer interns, Aldric Martinez-Olson and Yumi Kashihara, were also indispensable.

We will also pass along the questions we heard from the community to the Army Corps when they begin their study. We also hope you'll continue to ask the Army Corps these questions directly.

And in the coming years, we look forward to learning the answers with you.

A few of our tours included access inside Lock and Dam No. 1 (aka the Ford Dam), which is ordinarily closed to the public.

Experiencing the river firsthand

Our tours brought many of our participants to the river in a new way.

We met several folks who were new to the Twin Cities and eager to learn about the river that runs through our metro area.

Some of our attendees were kayaking the river for the first time. Many of our paddlers and boat tour participants experienced their first-ever trip through a lock. A few of our bike and walking tour groups (on Saturdays, when the Corps had staff at the lock and dam who graciously hosted us) got to walk through Lock and Dam No. 1 (aka the Ford Dam), which has been otherwise closed to the public for years. 

Through all of these visits, our staff team observed the river's changes. On our first tour in May, the river was so high that the gravel island often visible just below Lock and Dam No. 1 was completely submerged; only the treetops were visible. By July the island had grown quite large. At times, the river flow has been low enough that there was no water at all running over the dam.

These changes reminded us of how ever-changing rivers are, and how dam removal would give more of our river gorge this dynamic character: islands and more shoreline, fast and slow flows, and both shallow and deep areas of the river.

Many of our participants paddled or boated on the river for the first time. 

Get involved

We're still offering free tours and presentations to community groups such as neighborhood associations and civic clubs. Contact Maddie Miller, mmiller@fmr.org or 651.222.2193 x31, to learn more. 

When the colder weather comes, we'll take our engagement indoors to community workshops and online presentations. FMR's River Guardians will be the first to hear about upcoming special events; become a River Guardian today to stay updated. 

We'll also contact our River Guardians when the Army Corps announces dates for its official open houses and community meetings. 

On our boat cruise, Army Corps staffer Jill Bathke outlined the disposition study process while we traveled through the lock. (Photo by Tom Reiter)

Upcoming Events

May 1-31, 2023
Orvis - Miracle Mile, St. Louis Park
Saturday, June 3, 2023 - 9:00am to 11:00am
William H. Houlton Conservation Area, Elk River
Tuesday, June 13, 2023 - 5:00pm to 8:00pm
Fair State Brewing Cooperative, Minneapolis
Ole Olson prairie, Mississippi River, Minneapolis skyline

Celebrate 30 years of FMR!

For our 30th anniversary, our wish is for you to join us in restoring, protecting and enhancing the Mississippi River.